World Treasures of the Library of Congress - Beginnings
Sections: Introduction | Creation | Explaining and Ordering | Recording the Experience

Mal i ssi ka toenda.
Words become seeds.

Korean proverb

Earliest Example of Writing

In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Library of Congress acquired a collection of clay tablets that contain the earliest examples of writing held in the Library. The tablet displayed here is written in Sumerian and concerns the disbursements of wages to named supervisors of day laborers. The listed disbursements date to 2039 B.C., the year that King Amar Suen sacked the city of Sasrum.

Cuneiform tablet. Mesopotamia, 2039 B.C. Page 2. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (146)

Korean Metal Movable Type

These are specimens of the earliest known movable type. The first font was cast in the 1230s, some two hundred years before Gutenberg "invented" movable type in Europe. Though the exact year of these specimens is difficult to establish, judging from their crude and heavy workmanship they would seem to date from the earliest years. The Korean alphabet was not invented until the fifteenth century. These are Chinese characters, which are still widely used today in written Korean, along with the Korean alphabet.

Type specimens. Korea, ca. thirteenth century. Brass, iron, copper, and wood. Asian Division, Library of Congress (152)

Never memorize what you can look up in books.

Albert Einstein

First Book Published in the Western Hemisphere

According to the tenets of sixteenth century international law, the only legitimate reason to conquer other peoples was to convert them to Christianity. In 1541 John Cronberger, a master printer, went to Mexico specifically to establish a press there. Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548) wanted the first volume produced to be this catechism in the Spanish language to teach the faith to the indigenous population and to help Spanish settlers hold onto their beliefs far away from home.

Doctrina breve muy provechosa de las cosas que portenecen a la fe Catholica y a nuestra cristiandad en estilo llano para común inteligecia (A brief and very valuable compendium of the facts that pertain to the Catholic faith and our Christianity, in simple style, for the average intelligence). Mexico City: John Cronberger, 1543. Spanish-American Imprint Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (153)

Persian Calligraphy Page

According to an ancient Persian saying about the value of the written word, "A pen and a drop of ink/Makes the whole world think." Since around 700 B.C., Persian calligraphers have demonstrated this saying by creating exquisite works, such as this illuminated, hand-done page from a longer poem by Nuruddin Abdur Rahman Jami (1414-1492), the last great poet of classical Persian literature. Although in the West, calligraphy is considered penmanship, in Islamic countries it is an art. Artists from Persia (now Iran) are considered the best practitioners and are in demand to create Korans, illustrate classic works, and design tiles for mosques.

Calligraphy page from Dirvan-i Jami (Collected Poetry of Jami). Isfahan, Iran, early 1700s. African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (153.1)

One Million Pagoda Charms

The printing on these three strips of rice paper is the second oldest extant example of printing in the world, dating from around 764. Between 764 and 770, the Empress Shtoku, grateful for the end of an eight-year civil war in 764, ordered the Buddist prayers (dharani) to be printed and placed in "one million" tiny wooden pagodas as a memorial to the dead and distributed to monasteries throughout Japan. The Library's collection includes three of the four dharani which arrived from Japan in 1907 in this pagoda.

Hyakumanto dharani (One Million Pagoda Charms). Detail 1. Woodblock printed sutras and wooden pagoda, ca. 764. Japanese Section, Asian Division, Library of Congress (154a, b)

I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand.

Chinese Proverb

Early Korean Woodblock Printing

The carving of the woodblocks for the Korean Tripitaka (Buddhist canon) began in the early eleventh century and was completed in 1087. The original woodblocks were destroyed during the thirteenth century Mongol invasions. The Tripitaka Koreana that remains today is a later edition completed in 1251 and consists of 81,200 woodblocks. It is considered to be the finest, in terms of accuracy and calligraphic beauty, among the twenty some versions of the Tripitaka. This item is one of the 1251 edition woodblocks and was given to the Library in 1986.

“P'alman taejanggyong” (Tripitaka Koreana). Korea, 1231. Asian Division, Library of Congress (155)

Early Korean Printed Book

Some 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg made his famous Bibles, the lifework of Yi Kyu-bo (1168-1241) was set in type in Korea with metal movable type on handmade mulberry paper. The Yi Munsun Chip includes the author's historical essays, autobiography, poetry, descriptions of early printing and warnings against shamanism. The collected works were edited and printed in about 1241.

Yi Kyu-bo. Yi Munsun Chip (The Collected Works of Yi Munsun). Korea, 1241. Korean Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (156)

Tibetan Musical Score

This Tibetan manuscript is a musical score used for chanting rituals in Buddhist ceremonies. Curved lines are used to represent the melody, which would be accompanied by bells, cymbals, and other instruments. This form of musical notation, used in Tibet and Mongolia, is thought to be one of the oldest in the world.

Tibetan Musical Score, nineteenth century. Page 2. Page 3. Tibetan Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (147)

Ritual for Worshiping Books

In the autumn festival of Dipavali or Divali, Hindus traditionally worship the instruments of their vocation. Farmers venerate their seed corn and plough, craftsmen their tools, soldiers their weapons, and so on. Those in learned professions worship their books. This little manuscript (on the left) in the Sanskrit language gives the prayers for doing so.

This palm leaf manuscript of the Bhagavatpurana (on the right), the most famous version of the story of Krishna, shows the accumulation of sandalwood past and red powder applied to the wooden covers over many years of such worship.

1 of 2

  • Pustakapuja (Book of Worship). Maharashtra, nineteenth or early twentieth century. Southern Asian Section, Asian Division, Library of Congress (148)

  • Bhagavatapurana. Illustrated manuscript. Inscribed palm leaves with wooden covers. Orissa, India: Eighteenth century. Southern Asian Section, Asian Division, Library of Congress (148.1)

Thomas Jefferson's Library

The international collections of the Library of Congress started with the arrival of the Thomas Jefferson library in 1815. Jefferson's 6,487 volumes, sold to Congress for $23,950, expanded the scope of the Library far beyond the bounds of a legislative resource. Jefferson was a man of encyclopedic interests, and his library included works on architecture, the arts, science, literature, and geography. It contained books in French, Spanish, German, Latin, Greek, and one three-volume statistical work in Russian. Jefferson believed that the American legislature needed ideas and information on all subjects and in many languages in order to govern a democracy. His belief, reflected in the nature of his library, transformed the Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson's Library was on view to the public for the first time in its history from April 24, 2000 through November 21, 2001. Originally it was part of the Thomas Jefferson exhibition. After the exhibition closed, it remained on display and was incorporated into the first phase of the World Treasures Exhibition.

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Sections: Introduction | Creation | Explaining and Ordering | Recording the Experience